Tag Archives: Italy



Getting the Complete Picture of Ancient Rome with a Guided Tour

View into the Colosseum from the top tier. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

View into the Colosseum from the top tier. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

One of the most (if not the most) recognizable monuments in Italy is the Colosseum in Rome, so it’s not surprising that there’s a long line at the entrance almost year-round. That’s why, if you’re taking a guided tour of the arena, you want one that comes with skip-the-line access.

But just seeing the Colosseum on its own doesn’t give you a complete picture of life in ancient Rome. To get that, you need to also see the Palatine Hill and the Forum – and you need a guide with the knowledge to rebuild the ruins in your imagination. You get the whole package with a Skip the Line Walking Tour of Ancient Rome and the Colosseum.

Our guide for the day, Alessia, began the tour with a walk up the Palatine Hill, the most important of Rome’s ancient seven hills. It sits just to one side of the Forum, and is where legend says the city was founded. It’s where the wealthy of ancient Rome had their private residences, and because of this it’s where we get the word “palace.” It’s central to the geography of ancient Rome, being the central hill, and to the mythology and history of the Roman Empire.

So it’s the perfect place to start.

Overlooking the Forum from Palatine Hill. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Overlooking the Forum from Palatine Hill. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Alessia led us through the ruins of an imperial palace, and as we walked she pointed to the tunnels nearby. They were clearly man-made, with arched ceilings made of stone, and without context might have looked like passages from one part of the Palatine Hill to another. But they were more than just convenient.

“It’s hot today, even in March,” said Alessia. “Rome is always hot, and it was even in ancient times. These tunnels were built so the nobility could go for walks during the summer months without being exposed to too much sun.”

Aqueducts above for bringing in water, and tunnels below for shaded summer strolls. Oh, those clever Romans.

There’s a garden atop the Palatine, among the ruins, and a terrace with the best view over the Forum that you’ll find anywhere in Rome. It’s not hard to imagine the upper classes enjoying their palaces, their gardens, and this amazing view – though at the time, of course, they wouldn’t have been looking at ruins.

Alessia led us deeper into the Palatine Hill to what remained of the throne room dating from the 1st century CE, with a semicircular indentation in one wall still standing. This, she said, is the kind of building that served as the model for Christian churches, with the semicircular wall behind the main position of power (the throne) leading to the apse of a church behind the altar. The structure was recognizable to people of the time as one of authority.

Our tour guide in the former throne room. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our tour guide in the former throne room. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Walking back down the hill, Alessia led us to what is believed to be the oldest part of the Forum – a small area with grass growing in odd patterns that archaeologists think was part of an ancient cemetery for children, dating back to before the 6th century BCE. She described different buildings of the Forum, and added that the word “forum” itself meant “square.” This particular square, however, didn’t need a name or any descriptor. It was the most important square, so it was simply called “Forum,” just as it is today.

The highlight of the walk through the Forum was the recently-opened church of Santa Maria Antiqua. It dates from the 5th century CE, making it the oldest Christian structure in the Forum, and the inside walls have some remarkable frescoes from the 6th-8th centuries. The church was just opened to the public in 2016 after more than 35 years of restoration work, and it is still sometimes closed for further excavations and restoration, so getting to see the frescoes was truly a delight.

We continued through the Forum, pausing to see where the Temple of Julius Caesar once stood (where people still leave flowers), and then made our way to the final stop on the tour – the famous Colosseum.

Our Colosseum tour guide on the reconstructed floor. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our Colosseum tour guide on the reconstructed floor. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Ancient Romans who went to the Colosseum for games got their tickets for free, but of course today they cost money – and, as mentioned earlier, there are nearly always lines at the ticket windows of the Colosseum. With Alessia, we marched right past those and inside the first walls of the arena. There, she handed us over to Laura (there are very strict rules that only allow certain guides to lead tours inside the Colosseum).

Laura led us out onto the partially-reconstructed floor of the Colosseum, covering one end of the oval. We learned about what the ancient Romans called the building (it wasn’t “Colosseum”), how it only took eight years to build the whole thing, how almost all of the marble covering the surfaces we see today was either burned to make cement or used for other structures, and how there was once a retractable cloth roof that could be raised to cover the heads of the spectators.

We had chosen the upgraded tour option, so next we descended a flight of stairs to walk through part of the network of chambers underneath the Colosseum floor. These once held animals waiting to be raised into the arena on pulley-operated lifts (there’s a reconstructed lift visible from the arena floor). While in this lowest level, you can also see water sources – these were once used to fill the Colosseum for water games in its earliest years.

From the lowest level, Laura then led us to the uppermost level of the Colosseum by a series of steep staircases (the last one behind a locked gate). The views from the top tier are fantastic, looking down into the Colosseum itself and out over the city.

Underground in the Colosseum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Underground in the Colosseum. Photo by Jessica Spiegel.

Our tour concluded after heading back to the main level of the Colosseum, where we had not one but two tour guides to thank.

This tour includes a lot of history, and without a background studying ancient Rome or archaeology it’s likely that not all of it will stick. I was taking notes furiously the entire time and I still didn’t capture a fraction of what I was learning. Still, I’d recommend taking a guided tour of these incredible monuments over visiting on your own, partly for the access to places you wouldn’t see without a guide – and partly because with a good guide you’ll feel smarter afterward.

- Jessica Spiegel

Getting the Complete Picture of Ancient Rome with a Guided Tour from Viator Rome



5 Reasons to Visit Rome in Winter

Bundle up fashionably for a wintry Rome

Bundle up fashionably for a wintry Rome

Rome is never really a quiet city. It’s the busy Italian capital, and gets constant tourist attention on top of that. But Rome in the winter can be a refreshing alternative for visitors who don’t love big crowds – and who don’t mind cold weather.

Here are just a few reasons why you’d want to visit Rome in the winter months.

Smaller Crowds

Enjoy more elbow room in the Vatican Museums by visiting in the winter

Enjoy more elbow room in the Vatican Museums by visiting in the winter

No, Rome never empties of tourists entirely. In the winter, however, you’re far more likely to find there’s no line outside the Vatican Museums, allowing you to walk right in without buying a ticket in advance, and plenty of elbow room in the Sistine Chapel when you get to the end of your tour. The piazzas, churches, galleries, and restaurants aren’t as full, either, all of which gives you more time to enjoy Rome’s beauty in relative peace and quiet.

Lower Prices

Visitors to Rome in the winter months get to take advantage of what are typically lower prices on things like airfare, accommodation, and even sometimes tour prices. Prices often spike around holidays or winter festivals, such as Christmas, but you’re still likely to get a better deal if you travel to Rome in the winter than in the summer.

Christmas Markets

German-style Christmas markets are cropping up in lots of other European countries recently, and in Rome there’s a big one in Piazza Navona each year. There are others around the city, too, many of which have more authentically Italian goodies. Christmas markets in Rome can be festive places to pick up a unique souvenir or sample a local seasonal treat or two. These markets usually run from late November through Epiphany on January 6th.

Holiday Events

Rome, like plenty of cities around the world, gets festive around the holiday season with special events. There are often concerts in performance theaters as well as churches throughout the city, and New Year’s Eve especially is a night for fireworks. Check with the tourist information office when you get into town to find out what special holiday events are going on in Rome when you’re there, as the calendar for these changes each year.

Winter Sales Season

In Italy there are two official sales seasons when all retailers put “discount” signs on their goods. One is in the summer, and the other is in the winter. The winter sales period usually begins in early January and lasts for 5-6 weeks – each region can set their own dates. These dates change annually, but if you’re in Rome in January or early February chances are good you’ll see sale signs in every window.

- Jessica Spiegel

5 Reasons to Visit Rome in Winter from Viator Rome



Special Events for Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy

Pope Francis greets visitors in St. Peter's Square

Pope Francis greets visitors in St. Peter’s Square

Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy is largely in 2016, but some of the key events take place in late 2015. Not only that, while the Jubilee Year takes place over a total of 348 days, there isn’t a major event taking place every single day during that time. Here’s an overview of the major jubilee year events, so you can better plan your Rome visit.

Learn more about the Jubilee Year – what it is, and what to expect

Jubilee of Mercy Events in 2015

  • December 8th – The holy door of St. Peter’s Basilica is opened by Pope Francis after a morning Mass, marking the official start to the Jubilee Year. A cathedral’s holy door is only open during a Jubilee Year.
  • December 13th – The holy doors of Rome’s Archbasilica of St. John and the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls are both opened. Cathedrals elsewhere in the world will also open their holy doors on this date, too.
  • December 27th – Jubilee for the Family, in St. Peter’s Square.
Many papal audiences will be held in St. Peter's Square during Jubilee 2016

Many papal audiences will be held in St. Peter’s Square during Jubilee 2016

Jubilee of Mercy Events in 2016

  • January 1st – The holy door of Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major is opened on a “World Day for Peace.”
  • January 19th – Jubilee gathering for people who work at pilgrimage parishes and shrines around the world, in the Paolo VI Hall.
  • January 30th – Some papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • February 13th – Jubilee for prayer groups dedicated to Padre Pio, in St. Peter’s Square.
  • February 20th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • March 4th – “24 Hours for the Lord,” prayer services in St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • March 12th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • March 20th – Palm Sunday, also the Diocesan Day for Youth.
  • April 1st – Jubilee for people “Devoted to the Spirituality of Divine Mercy,” in St. Peter’s Square and several churches in Rome.
  • April 9th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • April 23rd – Jubilee for Boys & Girls, meaning children ages 13-16 who have been confirmed. Several churches in Rome and Vatican City will be set up for confessions.
  • April 30th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • May 5th – Pope Francis will lead a prayer “vigil to dry the tears,” in St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • May 14th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • June 10th – Jubilee for people who are sick or disabled, in St. Peter’s Square.
  • June 18th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • June 30th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • July 26th – Jubilee for Youth, on World Youth Day. The official site of World Youth Day in 2016 is Krakow, Poland.
  • September 10th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • October 1st – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • October 22nd – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • November 1st – Holy Mass for the faithful departed, at the Flaminio Cemetery.
  • November 6th – Jubilee for prisoners, in St. Peter’s Basilica.
  • November 12th – Some special papal audiences will be granted in St. Peter’s Square on this day.
  • November 13th – The holy doors of the Basilicas in Rome and around the world will be closed.
  • November 20th – Pope Francis will close the holy door of St. Peter’s Basilica, marking the end of the Jubilee Year.

- Jessica Spiegel

Special Events for Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy from Viator Rome



Staying Cool in Summer with Rome’s Drinking Fountains

Using a "nasone" in Rome

Using a “nasone” in Rome

There are ornamental fountains throughout the city of Rome, some of which are on the must-see lists of most visitors. There are also more utilitarian fountains that are easy to miss – these are Rome’s “nasoni,” or public drinking fountains.

In ancient times, Romans built aqueducts to carry water to the people of the city. Today, Rome’s residents have access to water from their tap and also while they’re out and about in the city, thanks to the roughly 2,500 public drinking fountains in Rome. They are technically called “fontanelle,” but most people know them as “nasoni,” for their large nose-shaped spigots.

The first nasone appeared in 1874, and most were installed in the 1920s. The water is cold and delicious and completely safe to drink. Anyone is welcome to refill a water bottle or grab a quick sip on a hot summer day, and some nasoni even have a pail at the bottom to collect water for panting pups. The water is recycled, so it’s not wasted.

There’s a map of nasoni in Rome, as well as a mobile app to help you find the fountain nearest you. And if you watch the locals, you’ll see that plugging up the bottom of the spout with your finger makes the water come through a hole at the top, making it easier to take a drink.

Join a walking tour of Rome’s squares and fountains or a Segway tour of Rome’s squares and fountains

- Jessica Spiegel

Staying Cool in Summer with Rome’s Drinking Fountains from Viator Rome



Pope Francis Declares Jubilee Year in 2016

Pope Francis among the crowds in front of St. Peter's Basilica

Pope Francis among the crowd in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Pope Francis recently announced that 2016 will be what’s known as a Holy Year, commonly called a “Jubilee Year.” The pope has declared it the Holy Year of Mercy, focusing on his favorite theme: compassion.

Jubilee Years have been called by the church every 25-50 years, starting in the year 1300. Historically, these were to be special periods of complete forgiveness of sins. In the Bible, it’s when slaves were to be set free and debts absolved. Today, a Jubilee Year is a time for the faithful to seek “Jubilee Indulgences” (which include visiting all four papal basilicas in Rome, entering through the “holy door”) and, more generally, an opportunity for the church to promote a particular theme (such as Pope Francis’ selected theme of “mercy”).

The Holy Year of Mercy will begin on December 8, 2015 with a ceremonial opening of the holy doors on Rome’s four papal basilicas – St. Peter’s in Vatican City, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls – which are only opened during Jubilee Years. Walking through all four of the holy doors is said to absolve a believer of all sins. The closing of the holy doors marks the end of the Jubilee Year – in this case, the end of the Holy Year of Mercy will be November 20, 2016.

If you’re visiting Rome and Vatican City during the Jubilee Year, you’ll see bigger crowds than normal – both pilgrims and tourists – and things like getting tickets to a papal audience, touring the Vatican and booking accommodations will require more advance planning than usual.

- Contributed by Jessica Spiegel

Pope Francis Declares Jubilee Year in 2016 from Viator Rome



Pope Francis Declares 2016 a Jubilee Year

Pope Francis among the crowds in front of St. Peter's Basilica

Pope Francis among the crowds in front of St. Peter’s Basilica

Pope Francis recently announced that 2016 will be what’s known as a Holy Year, commonly called a “Jubilee Year.” The pope has declared it the Holy Year of Mercy, focusing on his favorite theme of compassion.

Jubilee Years have been called by the church every 25-50 years, starting in the year 1300. Historically, these were to be special periods of complete forgiveness of sins – in the Bible, it’s when slaves were to be set free and debts absolved. Today, a Jubilee Year is a time for the faithful to seek “Jubilee Indulgences” (which include visiting all four papal basilicas in Rome, entering through the “holy door”) and, more generally, an opportunity for the church to promote a particular theme (such as Pope Francis’ selected theme of “mercy”).

The Holy Year of Mercy will begin on December 8, 2015 with a ceremonial opening of the holy doors on Rome’s four papal basilicas – St. Peter’s in Vatican City, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul’s Outside the Wall – which are only opened during Jubilee Years. Walking through all four of the holy doors is said to absolve a believer of all sins. The closing of the holy doors marks the end of the Jubilee Year – in this case, the end of the Holy Year of Mercy will be November 20, 2016.

If you’re visiting Rome and Vatican City during the Jubilee Year, you’ll see bigger crowds than normal – both pilgrims and tourists – and things like getting tickets to a papal audience or touring the Vatican will require more advance planning than usual. You’d be smart to book your accommodation as soon as possible, too.

- Jessica Spiegel

Pope Francis Declares 2016 a Jubilee Year from Viator Rome



7 Great Photo Ops in Rome

While many places in Rome are pretty as a picture, and nearly every street may seem poised for a photograph, there are some places that are worth the trek to capture the perfect image. Some of them are found on postcards sold throughout the city, so you know they’re ideal photo ops.

Want to learn from a professional while you’re exploring the Eternal City? Sign up for a Rome photography walking tour.

Capitoline Hill

Overlooking the Forum from Capitoline Hill

Overlooking the Forum from Capitoline Hill

Everyone takes pictures of the Roman Forum, but the excavated area is big enough that – when you’re walking through it – it’s impossible to get a great photo of it. One of the best places to do that is from up on the Capitoline Hill. The piazza at its center, designed by Michelangelo, is photogenic enough, but walk around behind the building at the back of the piazza and you’ll have a commanding view of the Forum.

The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica

From the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

From the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City

While St. Peter’s is the subject of many iconic images of Rome, climbing up into the dome affords you a view over the city like no other. From the top of the dome, you’ll see the colonnades of St. Peter’s Square stretch out before you as if they’re trying to hug the city of Rome beyond. Turn to one side and you’ve also got a great lookout over the Vatican Gardens.

The Pincian Hill Gardens

The view from the Pincian Hill gardens

The view from the Pincian Hill gardens

These gardens atop the Pincian Hill can be reached via stairs from the Piazza del Popolo or the Spanish Steps, and from up there you can take great photos of the Piazza del Popolo as well as cityscape views with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.

Janiculum Hill

The Vittoriano monument at night from the Janiculum Hill

The Vittoriano monument at night from the Janiculum Hill

Although Janiculum Hill isn’t one of the original seven hills of Rome, it’s now one of the best places to see the entirety of Rome spread out before you. So many of the best vantage points in Rome are also on top of things that you’d rather have in your photograph, but from the Janiculum Hill you even get those monuments in the frame.

The Top of the Vittoriano

From the top of the Vittoriano

From the top of the Vittoriano

There are plenty of Romans who don’t like the Vittoriano monument itself, but there’s no denying the allure of the 360-degree views of Rome you can have when you get onto its roof. The skyline stretches out around you, giving you a chance to pick out as many famous monuments as you can. And if you’re not crazy about the Vittoriano, either, then you’ll be happy it’s not in any of your shots.

Ponte Umberto

Looking toward St. Peter's from the Ponte Umberto

Looking toward St. Peter’s from the Ponte Umberto

One of the most popular postcard views of St. Peter’s Basilica is a photograph you can duplicate with a visit to the Ponte Umberto I. Midway across, you’ll enjoy an excellent vista of the church dome behind the graceful arches (and many sculptures) of the Ponte Sant’Angelo in the foreground. If the river beneath is calm and the day clear enough, you’ll also be treated to the whole scene repeated in the water’s reflection.

The Maltese Embassy Keyhole

Through the keyhole

Through the keyhole

You’ve no doubt seen this image before, even if you didn’t know what you were looking at – or through. The Maltese Embassy in Rome is atop the Aventine Hill, and the little keyhole in the enormous green door (which you won’t be able to go through) is a perfectly-framed viewpoint of St. Peter’s dome through an artfully-trimmed hedge. Capturing the image with a camera isn’t easy, but it’s a peek you won’t forget.

Get more insider tips about Rome

- Jessica Spiegel

7 Great Photo Ops in Rome from Viator Rome



Where to Find Caravaggio in Rome

Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601) in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.

Crucifixion of St. Peter (1601) in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.

The stereotype of the troubled artist is not new, but few epitomize it so perfectly as Caravaggio. He only lived to be 38, was on the run from the law for much of his adult life, was buried in a pauper’s grave, and left behind some of the most haunting paintings you’ll see in Rome – or anywhere else in Italy, for that matter.

Caravaggio’s work centers on the relationship between darkness and light, and though his subjects were religious the finished products were often criticized by the church when the subjects were too real-looking. Some of Caravaggio’s famous paintings are in galleries in Rome, while some remain in the churches for which they were originally commissioned. Taking a Caravaggio art walking tour of Rome will give you a chance to see many of these works in person, and also to understand this complicated master in the context of the city itself.

You’ll find Caravaggio paintings in the Galleria Borghese, Vatican Museums, Capitoline Museums, and Galleria Doria Pamphilj. There are others in the Palazzo Barberini and Palazzo Corsini. But you can see several of his most famous works for free (except for the coins you use to light up the niches where the paintings hang) in churches.

The Santa Maria del Popolo, on Piazza del Popolo, has two Caravaggio paintings – “The Conversion of St. Paul” and “The Crucifixion of St. Peter.” The Sant’Agostino church has his “Madonna di Loreto,” in which the Madonna’s normal appearance and peasants’ dirty feet were seen as quite shocking. Three paintings by Caravaggio are in the San Luigi dei Francesi church, all on the subject of St. Matthew.

Learn more about the best of the Eternal City in Viator’s Insider’s Guide to Rome

- Jessica Spiegel

Where to Find Caravaggio in Rome from Viator Rome



The Mouth of Truth & the Skull of St. Valentine

The Mouth of Truth outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin

The Mouth of Truth outside Santa Maria in Cosmedin

In the historic center of Rome, there is an old church with a famous tourist attraction on the outside and the relics of a famous saint inside – the Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin.

Construction on Santa Maria in Cosmedin began in the 8th century, with later work done in the 12th and 18th centuries. Some of the Baroque changes were removed in a later restoration, making the church we see today more akin to how it looked when it was first built. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and gained the addition of the word “cosmedin” in its title from the Greek word meaning “ornate.”

Most people who visit the area don’t go into the church, because its most famous attraction is actually on an exterior wall. The Mouth of Truth – la Bocca della Verita in Italian – is in a church portico. You may recognize it from the 1953 film “Roman Holiday.” It is widely believed today that the carved disc was once a drain cover.

It’s worth a stop inside the basilica, however, to see a piece of the 8th century mosaics from the original St. Peter’s Basilica, the beautiful mosaic floor, the lofty wooden ceiling beams, and the skull of St. Valentine. The saint’s skull is wearing a crown of flowers and is kept in an altar on the left side of the church.

-Jessica Spiegel

The Mouth of Truth & the Skull of St. Valentine from Viator Rome



Sperlonga Beach Trip from Rome

Sperlonga Beach

Sperlonga Beach

A quick look at a map will tell you that Rome is not on the coast of Italy. That doesn’t mean you can’t get to the coast for a beach getaway while you’re in Rome, however, especially if you just need a break from the hustle and bustle of the city. In fact, you can easily relax like the ancient Romans did with a day trip to Sperlonga from Rome.

Sperlonga was a seaside retreat for the ancient Romans – the Emperor Tiberius built a vacation villa for himself there in the 1st century. The villa itself no longer exists, but if you want a non-beachy attraction there’s a museum where the villa once stood.

The town itself sits to the southeast of Rome, a little less than 75 miles away. It’s closer to Naples physically, and there’s no train service directly to Sperlonga, so in order to get there on your own you’ll need to take a train to Formia and then take a bus to Sperlonga (with a bus change in Gaeta). The one-way trip will take roughly 2.5 hours.

For a more direct route (and less logistical hassle), you can skip the DIY trip and book a spot on a Sperlonga beach day trip from Rome that includes transportation via minivan (which cuts a half-hour off the travel time), a knowledgeable guide to fill your head with Sperlonga history and advice on the drive, time to lounge in the sand on a chair under a beach umbrella, and even an option to upgrade to a guided boat tour of the grottoes and ancient Roman ruins.

-Jessica Spiegel

Sperlonga Beach Trip from Rome from Viator Rome